Q & A: 10 Years of Decline in Global Freedom

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Distinguished Fellow for Democracy Studies
Bret Nelson

Countries that suffered setbacks to democracy over the past decade outnumber those that experienced improvements, but a closer look at the data reveals a more complicated picture.

According to the findings of Freedom in the World 2016, global freedom has declined during each of the past 10 years. Such a protracted democratic slump represents a major break from the steady and at times spectacular gains registered from 1975 to 2000. It is therefore worth asking more about what lies behind this negative trend.

How many countries experienced decline during this period? A total of 105 countries suffered net declines in their scores for political rights and civil liberties—more than half of the world’s sovereign states. Only 61 countries registered net gains.

Should we be alarmed by these figures? Alarm might be too strong a word. The majority of declines were small to moderate in size, reflecting some fraying at the edges of democratic institutions. On a 100-point scale, most countries that experienced declines lost between 1 and 10 points. This does not amount to an outright reversal of the gains registered during the last part of the 20th century. But it is cause for concern.

But some countries showed a level of decline that was quite significant. Yes, more than 20 countries registered declines of more than 10 points, including some that exercise influence on the global stage or within their regions, such as Russia, Turkey, Ethiopia, Kenya, Hungary, and Venezuela.

Is the global decline concentrated in democracies or dictatorships? The most pronounced trend is a decline among states that Freedom House places in the Not Free category. In other words, dictators behaving badly. To be sure, we have also seen mounting problems in both established democracies and countries that fall somewhere in the middle ground between democracy and authoritarianism. But practically every major authoritarian country became more repressive during the decade of decline.

Can we assume that elections are less likely to be free and honest than in the past? Actually, elections are the one major dimension of democracy that has not suffered over the past decade. While outright dictatorships have effectively rigged the ballot (just look at the mammoth margins of victory in countries like Belarus, Ethiopia, and Azerbaijan), in most countries elections are at least moderately competitive. During the past year alone, powerful political machines were overcome at the ballot box in Argentina, Venezuela, Nigeria, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Burkina Faso.

If elections haven’t suffered a major global setback, which institutions have borne the brunt of the assault on democracy? The indicators that experienced the most worrisome setbacks are freedom of expression (including press freedom, freedom of belief, and academic freedom), freedom of association (particularly civil society organizations), and the rule of law (independent courts, legal equality, and freedom from state or insurgent violence).

How do you account for the reversals in these areas? Are they special targets of authoritarian rulers? Political control over the press, civil society, and the justice system is fundamental to the 21st-century dictators’ playbook. Vladimir Putin’s first priority as president of Russia was to gain domination over the media. The Chinese Communist Party leadership devotes huge resources to preventing the Chinese people from getting access to uncensored information. Authoritarians fear civil society as a potential source of serious opposition and popular mobilization, especially in an era when traditional opposition parties have been marginalized or coopted in many countries. As for the rule of law, modern authoritarians prefer to decorate their acts of political repression with the imprimatur of the law. But to ensure that their unjust actions are ruled legal and innocent defendants are convicted, they must have firm control over the instruments of the legal system—the police, prosecutors, judges, in some cases even defense lawyers.

Which countries have suffered the greatest setbacks during the past decade? Of the five countries that experienced the greatest declines, four are in Africa: Central African Republic, The Gambia, Mali, and Burundi. The fifth country is Bahrain.

Which countries experienced the most substantial gains? Tunisia, Côte d’Ivoire, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Fiji. It’s worth noting that these countries underwent significant transitions toward democracy after periods of dictatorship, civil conflict, military rule, or in Bhutan’s case, rule by a traditionally powerful monarchy.  

What about the world’s more established democracies? Quite a few experienced declines, and in some cases the deterioration was substantial. In Europe, 22 countries suffered some sort of setback, including worrying reversals in Hungary, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, and Bulgaria.

And the United States? The United States has shown some modest but noticeable deterioration over the past decade—an unusual development. In highlighting America’s problems, we have pointed to flaws in the electoral process, a disturbing increase in the role of private money in elections and the legislative process, legislative gridlock, the failure of President Barack Obama’s administration to fulfill its promise of greater government openness, and serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system. While the United States remains one of the world’s strongest democracies, weaknesses in these areas have begun to have an impact on public confidence in America’s institutions and its role as a model for the world.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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